Learning from Failure and Developing Growth Mindset through Sport

Learning from Failure and Developing Growth Mindset through Sport

June 13, 2016
By Jocelyn Manion, Student Services and Athletics coach at CHS

As the spring athletic season comes to a close and the final champions for the school year are crowned, teams across the province celebrate and recognize their achievements. With more than 94,000 high school student-athletes in British Columbia participating in team and individual sports, only a lucky 5% will be part of a provincial winning team (BC School Sports, 2013). This shows that a large number of male and female athletes will be on the losing end. In a culture that still focuses on results, it is imperative that girls are equipped to deal with the trials and triumphs of athletic competition.
In sport, girls are going to be challenged physically, mentally and emotionally in a competitive environment. They will have moments of success and failure. For girls to develop a growth mindset on and off the field, we need to provide opportunities where they face failure and develop a confidence and resilience that can only be forged in times of challenge. A growth mindset will prepare girls to face challenging experiences head on, and learn from them.
A “fixed mindset” assumes that character, intelligence, and athletic ability are static. Individuals that have this type of mindset believe they can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the result of inherent intelligence (Dweck, 2008). Striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled for someone with a fixed mindset. An individual with a “growth mindset”, on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as an opportunity for growth and for stretching their existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which are manifested from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behaviour, our relationships with success and failure in an academic and extracurricular contexts (Dweck, 2008).
It is especially important for adolescent girls to understand and practice a growth mindset because they deal with failure differently than boys. When girls face setbacks, they perceive this as a lack of ability (Simmons, 2015). Boys, on the other hand, tend to attribute failure to more controllable circumstances. Studies have shown that these views have been developed based on the feedback from parents, teachers, and coaches (Simmons, 2015). Girls tend to receive corrective feedback about mistakes related to their ability, while boys tend to get more behavioural interventionsAs the spring athletic season comes to a close and the final champions for the school year are crowned, teams across the province celebrate and recognize their achievements. 

Recent studies have also shown that gender stereotypes can affect how kids experience failure. “Stereotype threat” occurs when people perform worse at a task due to the pressure of a negative stereotype of their group’s performance (Hively & El-Alayli, 2014). Women and girls often underperform at an athletic task because of gender stereotypes related to athleticism. When girls buy into the stereotype that they “can’t throw far” they don’t see their skill as something that can be developed. When girls begin to think about negative stereotypes related to their gender and sport, it causes girls to worry, which can lead to pressure and/ or poor performance (Hively & El-Alayli, 2014).

We know that girls encounter challenges when it comes to facing failure and gender stereotypes and that these challenges can be overcome by practice and growing their mindsets. Here are some suggestions on how to foster a growth mindset in our female athletes:

1. Focus on the process instead of result - during practices and games girls have a variety of different decisions that need to made within seconds. “What pass do I make?” “What serve do I choose at this moment?” “Should I shoot?” Regardless of the outcome of the pass, serve or shot, we need to recognize the intent. Talented female athletes are often self-critical based on the result of their actions even though they have made a good decision. It is important to recognize their actions and the process that was undertaken to get to that action. 
2. Cultivate a positive view of failure – athletes with a growth mindset find “success in learning and improving, not just winning.” (Dweck, 2008, p. 107). Girls should be given the feedback that if they walk off the field or court knowing they have given every ounce of effort, their abilities can be cultivated. A growth mindset thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of being unskilled but as a promising springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.
3. Girls support girls – healthy competition between girls on a team can prove to be motivating, supportive and collaborative. As coaches, we need to be aware of the dynamics of our teams and provide healthy competition, not comparison. One girl’s success should not be another’s failure. Coaches, managers, and players should be respectful and supportive of one another.
4. Building character – developing “character” is an important concept in the sports world, and it comes from a growth mindset. 
“I believe ability can get you to the top”, says John Wooden, legendary basketball coach, “but it takes character to keep you there…it’s so easy to…begin thinking you can just ‘turn it on’ automatically, without proper preparation. It takes real character to keep working as hard or even harder once you’re there. When you read about an athlete or team that wins over and over, remind yourself, ‘More than ability, they have character.” (Dweck, 2008, p. 97) The more character that is developed, the more rewarding sport will be for a girl, and it will encourage a lifelong commitment to sport.
5. Expose girls to athletic female role models – there are many inspiring athletic female role models in sport today that girls can look up too. Having a role model in sport is an important part of social learning that allows girls to emulate the positive aspects of attitude, work ethic, and social dynamics. It gives girls the opportunity to envision themselves in the role of coach, leader, and athlete. 

A growth mindset allows each girl to embrace learning, to welcome challenges, mistakes, and feedback, and to understand the role of effort in developing skills. As coaches, we play an important role in the growth of our athletes. By communicating to our athletes that we value passion, learning, and improvements, we can work together to produce growth mindsets as a team. 
• BC School Sports (2013). About Us. Retrieved from http://www.bcschoolsports.ca/about-us.
• Dweck, Carol (2008). Mindset, The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.
• Hively, K., & El-Alayli, A. (2014). “You throw like a girl:” The effect of stereotype threat on women’s athletic performance and gender stereotypes. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 15, 1, 48-55.
• Simmons, Rachel (2015). Why Failure Hits Girls So Hard. Retrieved from http://www.rachelsimmons.com/2015/09/why-failure-hits-girls-so-hard/